The Enigma Machine: code breaking before hacking

by Tim Dawe

The Isar River – the Deutsches (German) Museum sits in the middle of it

I’m looking for the famous World War II enigma machine in Munich’s Deutsches Museum and, despite the many signs, I just can’t work it out. It’s a mystery.
Eventually I find it among rows of nondescript plastic boxes containing early telecommunication devices, some disturbingly familiar. It’s certainly not a feature; just another half-hidden exhibit filed under information technology, a subset of this efficiently ordered museum’s Communication Branch.
It’s not just the history that fascinates this baby boomer, it’s the secret story behind this clunky-looking apparatus that makes it a must-see exhibit.

the illusive engima machine

The so-called enigma machine was an electro-mechanical cipher developed by Nazi Germany to encrypt secret messages to their wartime naval fleet. Using earlier Polish work, scientists at Britain’s famous code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park cracked the seemingly invincible enigma machine to reveal Germany’s vital secrets. This turned the tide in the war and, remarkably, continued undetected for years. The trove of top-secret intelligence, named Ultra, had a profound effect on reducing Germany’s dominance at sea, and the outcome of the war.

On VE Day Churchill told George V: “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.” President Eisenhower declared the intelligence breakthrough was decisive to the Allied victory.

Alan Turing FRS, the brilliant mathematician and co-designer of Britain’s code-breaking “bombe”, played a pivotal role in extracting crucial wartime secret intelligence. His work advanced computer science and pointed the way to artificial intelligence. Instead of being hailed as a hero, Turing was hounded and publically vilified, then prosecuted for the crime of homosexuality. He committed suicide in 1954, aged 42. In 2013, using her Royal Prerogative of Mercy, the Queen posthumously pardoned Alan Turing.

The Deutsches (German) Museum is an unexpected highlight of my short stay in Munich. Built in 1903, it is the world’s largest technology and engineering museum. And if you think that means dull, not so. Admittedly its functional architecture is monolithic and grey, matching this overcast, wet day, but it’s siting is superb. The vast complex of buildings straddles an island in the middle of the Isar River, just strolling distance from Munich’s picturesque Altstadt.

I am pleased my perseverance brings me to the enigma machine but there is a tinge of disappointment that I view it in isolation tucked away on this fusty top floor that has all the interactive gee-whizzery of a 1950s chemistry lab. I marvel at this machine and mentally tick a box. But there are other exhibits – and five floors of interlocking buildings.

The only way to go is down.

IMGP3483 I visit the popular Galileo’s Workshop in the Physics and Astronomy branch (physics sub-branch but it’s hard to categorise Galileo). Really, it is just a reconstruction. Everything is laid out neatly in a grid pattern: instruments, desk, experiments, world globe and the great man’s chair. It’s interesting but there’s no feel (or indeed smell) for what the real 16th century workshop would have been like. Perhaps some straw…dirt even? I remind myself this is a German museum of technology and engineering.

I next visit Pharmaceutical for an amazing experience. Dominating interactive exhibits in this modern, glowing space is a model of a human cell magnified 350,000 times. Visitors wander right inside the cell to witness chemical reactions. Learning about cellular structures was never more vivid, and fun.


Going down, and possibly quite a distance from where I think the entrance is, I stumble upon Aviation and Space Travel. This is where the action is. And lots of noisy, excited kids and family groups. This exhibition hall is huge. It has planes everywhere, some above us, some landed, and even a space capsule. Aircraft are from many eras including an original by the Wright brothers. It must be me; I was drawn to the Messerschmitt.

IMGP3488Other branches of the museum include Mining Metallurgy and Agriculture, Glass Ceramics and Machine Tools, Energy Technology, Marine Navigation, Civil Engineering and, for three-year-olds and up, Kids Kingdom – all interesting but altogether too much.
The museum has several “off-island” branches including, near the Oktoberfest site, the world’s largest transportation museum.
There are 17,000 exhibits in the Deutsches Museum and I’ve seen a tiny fraction.
I develop museum fatigue and seek sustenance.
Morning tea in the cafeteria means going up the stairs again but the view is worth it. I see a panorama of city buildings amid leafy green, some intriguing roofs and, upstream, the beautifully peaceful expanse of the Englischer Garten, my next destination.
All that secret squirrel business of ciphers, cryptology and code breaking is not everyone’s cup of Hofbräu lager. This museum has lots more to offer. It’s a good way to spend a few hours on a cold, rainy day at Munich’s Deutsches Museum on the Isar.



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